Just five votes save Blair

By Graham DinesPolitical EditorTHE Government survived last night its greatest test since winning power in 1997 when MPs approved the second reading of its flagship Higher Education Bill by a majority of just five.

By Graham Dines

Political Editor

THE Government survived last night its greatest test since winning power in 1997 when MPs approved the second reading of its flagship Higher Education Bill by a majority of just five.

It would have been catastrophic to the prestige of Tony Blair had he lost, but the size of the majority - cut from more than 160 overall - suggests there is deep unhappiness and resentment in “Old” Labour ranks at the public sector reforms the Prime Minister is trying to push through.

Last-minute cajoling and arm-twisting of potential Labour rebels paid off, with concessions on grants and fees being enough to stave off a humiliating defeat.

It seems Chancellor Gordon Brown played a key role, persuading his allies - including leading rebel Nick Brown - not to vote against the measure.

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The Government may have won, but the Prime Minister's authority has been badly dented and the fees war is far from over.

For MPs and peers opposed to giving universities the ability to vary their fees between nothing and £3,000-a-year could still attempt to overturn this aspect of the legislation in later Commons and Lords debates.

Having cleared last night's hurdle, Mr Blair must now negotiate today's publication of Lord Hutton's inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Government scientist Dr David Kelly after he was identified as the source of a BBC report casting doubts on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Opening the Commons debate, Education Secretary Charles Clarke bluntly warned Labour rebels that rejection of the further education funding package would “strip universities” of the resources they needed.

“It is fair to ask students when they have graduated to make a contribution towards the cost of the university education from which they have benefited,” he said.

Mr Clarke added the lion's share of spending on higher education would always, under Labour, come from the public purse, but that would not be enough.

“We cannot continue to rely on the taxpayer alone to solve these matters. I conclude that it is fair to ask students when they have graduated to make a contribution towards the costs of the university education from which they have benefited,” he said.

That would provide at least £1billion a year for the universities and Mr Clarke warned one of the most significant implications of a defeat for the Bill would be that universities would be stripped of the resources they needed to address the challenges of the future.

Turning to the crucial question of student support, Mr Clarke announced that from 2006, all students from low-income backgrounds would get a single grant of up to £2,700.

“Around 30% of students will be eligible for the full grant and a further 20% to 25% where family income is up to £33,500 will be eligible for partial grant,” he said.

“This will give students real choice over how they manage their finances and will give more cash up front to help them while they are studying.”

Mr Clarke added one “key point” of the package was it eliminated up-front fees. He said he accepted that the fees - introduced by Labour - had proved unpopular and acted as a clear barrier to higher education.

Tory former Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke intervened to claim the “ordinary student from the ordinary family will carry the burden” of the measures.

While the well-off would continue to pay and the working classes would be helped by the Government, those who were just outside the grant threshold would be hit.

Shadow education secretary and South Suffolk MP, Tim Yeo, said the Bill attacked university independence, damaged students and failed to address the long-term needs of higher education funding.

He added the issues involved were “profoundly important” for the future of the UK's universities that had been underfunded by successive Governments for many years.

Mr Yeo warned: “As a result universities are now at risk of losing talent and status. How to restore adequate funding in an way that is fair and sustainable is one of the most urgent challenges facing the Government.”

“What is at stake is how we will shape higher education and our investment in the human capital of the nation.

“Unfortunately, it has become clear that this Bill is deeply flawed and we are opposed to it because it attacks university independence, it damages students, it does not solve the long-term funding needs of universities.”

However, Mr Yeo said many university vice-chancellors supported the Bill because they knew it “unlocks the door” to top-up fees of much more than £3,000.

“For every vice-chancellor that supports this Bill there are thousands of students at his or her university who are opposed to it,” he added.

Pressed over alternative proposals, Mr Yeo pledged if his party were elected it would not introduce standard or variable top-up fees.

“Approving this Bill will force future generations of students heavily into debt just when they should be encouraged to save,” he said.

“Approving this Bill opens the door to making access to university dependent on ability to pay, not ability to learn.”

graham.dines@eadt.co.uk

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